“How can we motivate and engage students?”
It’s a difficult question that many educators grapple with. Why is Anna jumping out of her seat to ask a question, while Michael seems unfocused and withdrawn? There are many factors that come into play when we think about motivation and engagement — previous student experience, developmental differences, and of course large structural factors like poverty and trauma.
Over the past couple of decades, there has been a growing body of evidence showing that we should also consider students’ beliefs about the nature of intelligence when we think about why some students are more motivated and engaged than others.
Growth vs. Fixed Mindset
For students with a growth mindset — who believe that intelligence can be developed — school can be an exciting place because it provides them with an opportunity to learn and grow. These students embrace challenges and respond to failure by working harder or by trying different strategies.
For students with a fixed mindset — who believe that intelligence is a fixed trait — school is about judgement and performance. They conclude that they are not “smart” at something if they have to put in effort or if schoolwork is challenging, and give up when they fail because they believe that they have discovered something they are inherently not good at.
Over time, students with a growth mindset tend to outperform students with a fixed mindset. But students aren’t just born with certain mindsets — they develop mindsets based on the messages they receive from their environments. Rigorous research also shows that mindsets can be shifted, and when they are, students do better in school.
Here are three things that teachers and parents can do to help students develop a growth mindset:
(1) Teach students that the brain is malleable.
When students learn the truth about the brain — that it can actually be rewired through learning — they start to see challenges as opportunities to grow, rather than signs that they lack ability.
For example, you can teach students that the brain is made up of neurons, and these neurons are connected to each other. These connections can be weak or strong, but when you practice, challenge yourself, and put in effort, these connections can get stronger, and that’s how you get smarter. Check out this lesson plan (co-created with Khan Academy) for more ways to teach students about the brain.
(2) Praise the process, not the person.
Telling students that they are smart may seem like a good way to build up their confidence, but it can actually undermine it. When you praise students for being smart when they succeed, when they struggle later they think: “If my past success made me smart, my current struggle makes me dumb.” But if you focus on the process and help students understand that their actions lead to success, when they face a setback they’ll realize that there are actions they can take to overcome that setback.
Importantly, process praise should be specific and authentic. One misconception about helping students develop a growth mindset is that you should always focus on students’ effort. While it’s useful to show students how their effort leads to their success, process praise is not just telling students that they tried hard. It’s helping students focus on the learning process. For example, when praising students’ writing, you can tell them how their lead really hooks the reader. This video has great examples of how to make process praise specific and authentic.
(3) Celebrate mistakes.
Students learn the most when they do challenging work, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. Unfortunately, many students think that making a mistake is one of the worst things they can do in school. To help change this attitude, parents and teachers can change the way they talk about and respond to mistakes, and they can show students that they value the learning process over getting the right answer. This reflection activity is a good place for parents to begin thinking about how their own beliefs about failure and mistakes can influence their children’s mindsets, and this set of resources for teachers includes activity ideas for the classroom.
Students learn the most when they do challenging work, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes.
When celebrating mistakes, it’s important to encourage productive struggle rather than careless errors. When students are engaged in productive struggle, they make sense of a problem, explore different approaches to the problem, and articulate their thinking process. They ask questions, make educated guesses, try out different ideas, and critique each other to move their collective understanding of the problem forward. Importantly, students have an awareness of their current level of understanding of the problem and are able to use strategies and tools to get unstuck. The teacher does not give students step-by-step instructions. Rather, he or she guides them by asking questions and encouraging them to use different strategies and tools. This video shows a classroom where students are engaging in productive struggle and learning from their mistakes.
These three strategies help students focus on learning and development, rather than performance and judgement. Combined with the right classroom and school structures, they can make school a more exciting place where students are engaged, challenged, and continuously growing.
PERTS is an applied research center at Stanford University. It partners with schools, colleges, and other organizations to improve student motivation and achievement on a large scale.
Want more? For more information about growth mindset and ideas to help students cultivate a growth mindset, check out the PERTS Mindset Kit — A set of free online resources that introduces learning mindsets, describes why they are so important, and details what educators and parents can do to help students develop them. All of the materials are based on rigorous research and expertise from teachers who have successfully developed learning mindsets in their own classrooms.